Contribution to Virtual Embrace (06/30/2017), a symposium exploring the streamed, disrupted, bodily substance – intimate, awkward, live, therapeutic, sexual, alchemical. Developed by Res. from research carried out in the archive of media art curator Kathy Rae Huffman. Featuring screenings and performances from Annabelle Craven-Jones, Elizabeth Mputu, Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowicz, Shu Lea Cheang, Ayesha Tan Jones. Speakers: Victoria Sin, Helen Hester, Nina Wakeford.
Supported by Goldsmiths Library, Goldsmiths Research and Enterprise Committee and The Annual Fund.
(Response to Those Fluttering Objects of Desire, Shu Lea Cheang, 1992)
In Technologies of Gender, Teresa de Lauretis sets out the need for feminist discourses to allow new spaces “to rewrite cultural narratives, and to define the terms of another perspective – a view from elsewhere”. She presents cinema as a technology of gender, a social technology, “before Foucault’s La volonté de savoir (1976) feminist film theorists had been analysing the sexualisation of the female star in narrative cinema via apparatuses and techniques such as lighting, framing, editing, and cinematic codes like the system of the look, that construct woman as image and object of the spectators voyeuristic gaze, and primary site of sexuality and visual pleasure.”
The title of of Shu Lea Cheang’s 1993 work in the Whitney Biennale ‘Those Fluttering Objects of Desire’ is taken from a reading of two music compositions, Hu Die and Hsu Feng, from John Zorn’s East Asian Bar Bands collection. Both titles refer to the names of iconic Chinese screen actresses of the 1930s-50s. Hu Die was typically cast as the sensuous femme fatale, seducing viewers with a gaze of gentle passion. Hsu Feng was a sword wielding woman of revenge, described in the installation proposal as “formidably castrating, eternally inscrutable… secretly desired but ultimately unobtainable… ”. Hu Die and Hsu Feng, situated in the social technology of cinema, are presented to be consumed within the predetermined system of the look. These women are typecast as sensuous femme, femme fatale, fictional characters performing archetypal roles of woman bound in predetermined femininities, acting either passive or active but always acting to reaffirm and reify the ways in which, in this case, specifically east Asian women appear and perform as sites of sexuality and visual pleasure.
It is not that bodies categorized as woman and raced bodies are not sites of sexuality and visual pleasure, but rather that the terms of their sexualisation within the sex-gender system, along with the processes of objectification and consumption of gendered and raced bodies, are predetermined according to societal narratives which we are born into and steeped in. These narratives are being constantly and continuously written and reified by representational technologies such as cinema, and especially pornography, which construct the identity categories and social relations that they purport to represent. Cinema and pornography are pedagogical and teach us how to look, how to act within the gaze, and how to action our own bodies towards others based on visual cues pointing towards identity categories: scripts and narratives that we have seen acted out before.
The ways in which desire manifests on and between bodies are directioned by systems of looking already in place, written and reified as natural and true within and alongside systems of power, reenacted and reaffirmed on and by our own bodies when we, most of the time, unconsciously play out these scripts.
Within mainstream pornography that appears in the Western world, subjects who are always already other based on cultural, scientific, and theoretical, narratives which pre-exist us are not only marginalized but also fetishized. What is plain to anyone who has visited an online mainstream porn outlet, is that narratives of heroism, domination, subjugation, and exoticization based on the neo-colonial white supremacist capitalist patriarchal context we are present in pervade every aspect of our lives including (or especially) the most personal and intimate.
De Lauretis writes “the terms of a different construction of gender also exist, in the margins of hegemonic discourses. Posed from outside the heterosexual social contract, and inscribed in micropolitical practices, these terms can also have a part in the construction of gender, and their effects are rather at the “local” level of resistances, in subjectivity and self-representation.”
If as de Lauretis proposes, “the construction of gender is both the product and the process of its representation”, at the local level, in the micropolitical practice of self-representation, is an opportunity to disrupt the constant circular flow of representation, reification, and production of binary gender and exploitative sexuality.
Cheang describes ‘Those Fluttering Objects of Desire’ as a declaration of a departure from objectification to participation. Though the two are not mutually exclusive. In the enactment of desire with others and even with oneself, as long as there is an object of desire there is objectification. It’s in the self-direction and self-representation of the experiences of objectification that we can refocus the ways in which bodies are eroticized, rather than exoticized. This is what Cheang’s installation practices, within a community of artists, building a network of storytelling for each narrative to sit within. Using the format of the the 25 cent peep show and 1-900 numbers, she brings together women across experiences of race and sexuality to take on pornography as a social technology. Inviting them to use the erotic as a medium of sociopolitical self-expression, and question the terms of their gendering and sexualisation through frank expressions of their own desire. According to Cheang, at the time, though her work was very political, in her “circle of woman filmmakers you never talked about sex”. Even now it feels radical to speak plainly on the overlap and influence of the political and public on the most intimately personal. In a review, Cheang’s installation was described as a “union of personal and political”: Reflecting on this statement now, and considering these two propositions by de Lauretis:
1.The construction of gender is both the product and the process of its representation
2.The construction of gender is the product and the process of both representation and self-representation
The personal and the political are always already tied in the cyclical processes of representation, image consumption, embodiment, and enactment of sexuality. In her contribution, Yong Soon Min states:
“The fact that I am Asian colours everything… Our union is a take of discovering amid displacement – a series of movings, of leavings, and of arrivals – of longing and searching. From the ashen lands of the past, together we seek new territories which as yet, are un-named, making a map for each other to follow.”
Many of the participatory break-ins in ‘Those Fluttering Objects of Desire’ speak of a longing and amidst displacement, and searching across experiences of desire. This experience of searching I think is common among those who are aware on some level that the terms by which their bodies are sexualized are set by dominant cultural discourses - metanarratives which have come into being through violent histories and structural oppression.
I’ll turn now to a point that Haraway stresses, which is the inseparability of nature and culture. Considering humans are the only animals that completely construct the environment in which the brain is shaped and grows, it becomes incredibly pressing that we begin to not only question the authority and authorship of technologies carrying and reproducing narratives of naturalized sex and gender that surround us, but also to produce narratives that fulfill our own needs and fantasies in order to constitute the truths of our own bodies and desires, and to do so seriously and collectively.
Part 2 (headphones recommended)